NAIROBI — Last week's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall by al-Shabab militants claimed at least 60 lives and left dozens missing.
As Kenyan authorities scramble to provide precise casualty tolls and explain delays in the complicated rescue operation, stories of heroic feats are beginning to emerge from the horror.
Caught in a crossfire, hiding in plain sight of terrorists with a terrified baby shrieking from surrounding explosions and heavy machine-gun fire, Katherine Walton calls her family's survival a miracle.
The American mother from North Carolina and her five children — two sons and three daughters — were at Westgate Mall while her husband, Philip, was on a U.S. trip.
With three young girls in tow, Walton was headed to the mall supermarket to meet her boys when the attack began with volleys of gunfire and explosions.
A Kenyan woman pulled Walton and her girls — ages 4, 2 and 15 months — behind a flimsy promotional booth that provided scant protection. Walton recalls being in plain sight of an attacker looking down from above, and how one terrorist stared directly at her but for some reason did not fire.
“I don’t know why," she says. "There’s no explanation... We were there and very visible.”
In the midst of acrid smoke, deafening explosions and screaming shoppers, Walton's infant daughter was quiet, sucking at a bottle of milk. But after the milk ran out, the child began wailing. Other women taking shelter in the same place soothed Walton's toddler and 4-year-old, but everyone was frightened that the infant's screams would attract the gunmen's attention.
Luckily, the family was spotted instead by Abdul Haji, a Kenyan man who lives near the Westgate Mall and rushed to the scene looking for his brother as soon as he heard about the shooting. Haji, a gun enthusiast and keen hunter, had a pistol and 14 bullets, but no other weapons or protection. Nevertheless, he remained at the mall for hours, helping to evacuate shoppers, many of them wounded, who had been pinned down by the gunfire, at times providing covering fire to help people escape attackers prowling the mall.
Haji called out to Walton and the others crouching nearby, telling them to run toward safety after they had thrown tear-gas canisters in an attempt to shield the women and children.
Walton called back to Haji to say she could not carry all the children, so Haji told Walton to send out the biggest, and was amazed when 4-year-old Portia dashed toward him unafraid.
“Suddenly the kid appears, out of nowhere, and she starts running toward us," Haji tells VOA. "And I was really touched by this, because I thought she was really, really brave. I don’t even know how old she was, but she looked very young. This kind of gave us courage, when we saw how brave the little girl was, running toward strangers with guns.”
Then Walston scrambled out of her hiding place. She and the Kenyan woman who helped her earlier carried the 2-year-old and the infant.
Meanwhile, Walton's two boys were hiding at the back of the supermarket behind sacks of flour. Walton had warned them via cell phone to stay out of sight, and luckily they followed her advise, because the attackers lured some shoppers out of hiding by declaring they were police officers. She didn't know this.
The boys eventually were rescued by real Nairobi police, who entered the market through a rear door and ushered them outside.
In the supermarket's aisles, many shoppers lay slaughtered as cheerful music played over the mall's sound system.
Walton says she and Haji shielded the girls from witnessing the most horrible scenes around them, and that her daughters now recall what happened as "a fight between goodies and baddies," with Haji and some other Kenyans as their heroes.
"Some bad men came in, and they were shooting," says Walton, telling the story in her daughters' words. "And we lay real still and we were quiet, and then some good men came in and saved us. And the good men had guns, but they came in and took us out and saved us.”
Four-year-old Portia said she wasn't worried when she dashed toward Haji, or frightened by his pistol, because she thought he was a family friend she knew from church.
Haji hasn't had a chance to see the Walton children since the mall shootout, but says he will soon. "I just want to tell the little girl that she is very brave," he says. "She actually is my hero.”
Humble Haji only spoke out about his role in saving scared shoppers because he feared that al-Shabab's bloody attack would trigger anti-Muslim sentiment. Well-wishers have been coming up to congratulate him in public since his story spread through Nairobi, and the shy hero has taken to wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap to escape notice.
Philip Walton, who rushed back from the U.S. to reunite with his wife and children, says he can’t wait to voice his eternal debt to Haji.
“I look forward to the day that I can shake Abdul Haji’s hand and personally thank him for his willingness to risk his life to save my family," he said. "Honestly, I’m so honored and privileged to get to live in this great country [of Kenya], surrounded by people like this, and I know that as horrific as this is, we cannot stop talking about the heroes."
Still drawing attention
A full week after the September 21 shootings, passersby come up to greet Haji as he stands in the now quiet shopping center speaking with a VOA reporter. Eager to point out that attackers who claim to fight in the name of Islam have nothing to do with his religion, he says the memory of a tale from his boyhood — the story of a man who saved the life of a dog, because all life is precious, and was rewarded in paradise — is just one of the teachings about how precious life is.
“We are also taught that if you save the life of one human being, it’s like you’ve saved the life of all humanity," Haji says. "If you take the life of one human being, it’s like you’ve taken the life of all of humanity, and that’s how you are going to be judged.”
The assistance Walton received from Haji and other heroes has strengthened her family’s resolve to stay in Kenya and reject any bad feelings about Somalis and Muslims.
“As soon as I start harboring hate and fear, you know, to me, the people that did this, they really [have] won," Walton said. "Because that’s what they want. They want us to fear, to be scared to go out and do stuff. And I think really seeing our community gathered here ... has been a real encouragement.”
Haji thinks anyone else would have acted as he did during the shootings, as yet another shopper comes up to shake his hand and suggest that he run for public office.